Staying employed is now a science

Like everyone else, scientists and engineers are having to reassess their career structures. Rachelle Thackray looks at a book that helps them do it

HOW would you describe your relationship with your employer? One which is stuck temporarily with a Post-it note, or held together by Blu- tack? Is it firmly glued, or are you inseparably super-glued 'till death do us part? Crucially, would your company come unstuck if you weren't there?

Scientists and engineers are among those who are finding that, in a changing marketplace, they are having to re-evaluate their roles. No longer, as in common myth, relegated to the lab and left to potter with test-tubes, they are having to shape their careers with as much energy as contemporaries in other fields. To aid them, a collective of science-based companies has collaborated to produce a new book, Building Careers That Fit.

The report, which includes case studies and a personal development planner, was brought out together with a video by the Institute of Physics after its 25 affiliated companies pinpointed the need to help employees to develop their roles and manage their expectations.

As the IoP's Susan Partridge puts it: "I spent a long time working in a technical industry, and 20 years ago, big companies had corporate research labs. That's where you went if you wanted to be a scientist working on industrial things. It's not the case in smaller, innovative companies. There isn't a big brother company that's going to look after you for the rest of your life."

Instead, scientists may find themselves personae non gratis, unless they work hard to relocate a niche. While they may see themselves as providing specialist services, these are, in the cold light of day, increasingly considered peripheral to core business processes - and become candidates for outsourcing.

"Even when specialised functions are kept within the company, there is a trend towards making them justify their existence by showing that their services are in demand by the core process teams. This means that these specialists must regard the core processes as customers," says the book.

According to one school of thought, scientists traditionally found satisfaction in pursuing "the ultimate solution". These days, creativity may be narrowed down by time and cost constraints. Negotiating, IT and networking skills are equally important.

Roy Henderson, who worked as a technical manager before establishing his own optical radiation consultancy, says: "Technical knowledge is just the starting point. You also have to be a good negotiator and project manager and understand the business context of the technical problems you're facing. Often the solutions are as much about bringing people together or changing behaviour as providing expert knowledge."

The glue model is used in the book to help employees see where their organisation, and their own careers, are headed. Post-it note companies are described as those which have no business need to offer job security, relying instead on transferable skills. A Blu-tack firm, often in the service sector, may offer reasonable job security.

"Glue" companies are heavily dependent on skills and knowledge which take time to acquire, while their super-glue counterparts seek a strong bond with employees because they may undertake long-term projects which rely on embedded knowledge.

The IoP, which has more than 22,000 members, has already produced a video for schoolchildren and a CD-Rom for use in universities, showing the opportunities for those wanting a scientific career.

The book, intended for those already employed by a science-based company, aims to open scientists' eyes to a new way of working. "Many employers are introducing a revised psychological contract based on the concept of "employability"... This replaces long-term career security with a commitment to provide employees with the experience and development opportunities that will allow them to remain employed in future," says the book.

"The scientists and technologists who recognise this change and take control of their own careers will not only cope most effectively with the downs of today's fast-changing and often insecure working environment, but will also be well placed to take advantage of the many opportunities it creates."

q 'Building Careers That Fit' costs pounds 20 to non-IoP members and is available from 0171 470 4800.

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